What makes a "Sonic Game" a "SatAM Game"?
What makes a "Sonic Game" a "SatAM Game"?
This is a question I've asked myself hundreds of times over the years, long before starting development on Sonic RPG.
"What makes a 'Sonic game' a 'SatAM game'?"
Many folks have made Sega Sonic style SatAM games-- and I tend to really enjoy these games (Sonic Epoch, of course being a notable mention, but also Sonic Transitions as well as the Sonic-16 demo). When I was originally approaching the development of Sonic RPG, I actually was just thinking about how to make the most compelling Sonic SatAM game I could think of. Though I was a big fan of RPGs, I wasn't completely convinced that an RPG was the right approach for a SatAM game. What I wanted, first and foremost, was a game that best represented the feeling of Sonic SatAM.
Why an RPG?
I eventually settled on the game being an RPG around 2018, which lead to the creation of the first public demo landing in SAGE 2019.
I found that the RPG genre fits SatAM well in a few ways:
- Helps level the playing field. Contrary to an action-based game, RPGs allow you to show off the character traits of a wide variety of playable characters and, if balanced with character-specific enemies/bosses/scenarios, prevent you from feeling like any one character is "useless".
- Keeps the game grounded in the story and characters. For me, story sequences in action games can sometimes feel like they drag-- perhaps because of the discrepancy between having complete control over your character during action sequences and having absolutely no control during story sequences (Though I somehow didn't really mind how this was done in Sonic Epoch). Perhaps because RPGs tend to run a bit slower paced anyways, I feel that the overall game design better lends itself to frequent story sequences.
- Allows a diverse array of characters to be playable without feeling the need to invent non-canon reasons for them to match up with Sonic. (Somewhat similar to point 1) The most common example of this would be giving Sally a pistol. Granted, I give characters exaggerated abilities from the show (Antoine's "Bore" and Sally's "Infect" definitely come to mind), but they are at least in line with what you see in the show.
- Because of its slower pace, I find that an RPG can more easily add atmosphere to various maps of a game (Something that I also consider to be a crucial component in any SatAM game, given the deeply atmospheric qualities of so many of the show's locations-- be it the dark and ominous Robotropolis, or the lush and vibrant Great Forest. An action-based title (particularly a fast paced one) may have a difficult time balancing gameplay and mood in some cases, and struggle to slow the player down long enough for them to actually take in their surroundings.
I felt these few reasons were compelling enough to make the base game an RPG. Obviously the 2019 demo was still very short, and early in development, and thus lacked a lot of the depth of story and character I was wanting, even from an RPG. Even taking that into account, however, I couldn't help but feel like I was still leaving out some crucial components of the SatAM experience that "were" action-oriented. Things like:
- Really feeling Sonic's speed. Yes, you could still run as Sonic using left-shift, as you can in later demos, but there was no pick-up and there was no great place to use it in that demo. Even if I did include a spot where you could run around, the mechanics of the game wouldn't have really captured the feeling of Sonic running in the show, imo. This is a huge loss, obviously, because Sonic the Hedgehog is literally about a fast blue hedgehog. This was a clear signal to me that something needed to change.
- Sneaking around. In the 2019 demo you could sort of avoid bots seeing you, but it wasn't really that impactful outside you not getting xp. You could also avoid battles by using Bunnie's mecha-arm to pull swatbots off ledges, but it didn't really matter if you were caught before doing so. Sneaking around Robotropolis is a major part of what makes SatAM feel like SatAM. The characters don't want to just run around and fight everything, they want to avoid fighting, if they can, because bots are numerous and dangerous. So making bot battles feel like dime-a-dozen fights, as you might see in Chrono Trigger, didn't feel right.
So for the 2020 demo I made sure to add two new features to account for this discrepancy.
- Sonic run levels. You will see two of these in the 2020 demo. One, when you are chasing after the roboticized child in the sewer system and the second when you are escaping Robotropolis after the boss fight at the end of the demo. Both of these scenes are intended to capture a cinematic tone that often accompanies anytime Sonic is running at mach speed in the show. And of course, I had to get Sonic's Theme from the show in there somewhere (For anyone who hasn't already figured this out, I have an obsessive love of the show's score and its use in climactic scenes. For more on this, check out my blog on Music).
- Metal Gear Solid-like stealth features and more abilities to evade/kill enemies without doing a turn-based battle. The whole beginning of the 2020 demo is, of course, dedicated to this feature and proving that you can have interesting gameplay in a Sonic game without having Sonic "at all"! The killing enemies on the map piece was there in 2019 (inspired largely by Super Mario RPG), but the stealth, I think, really helped drive home the feel of a SatAM game.
So today we have three primary components that have produced Sonic RPG: A story-based RPG, cinematic run levels, and interesting ways of engaging with enemies and objects outside battles (stealth, map kills, etc).
With these three pieces working together, I feel like Sonic RPG has found a great balance of features that (in my opinion, at least) best capture the feeling of a Sonic SatAM game.
What do you think? Does Sonic RPG strike a good balance? Is it still missing something? Let me know on discord or in the comments.
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